Tolkien: Faith and Fiction – Liverpool Hope University Lecture marking the fiftieth anniversary of J.R.R.Tolkien’s involvement in the translation of the Jerusalem Bible and the link between his faith and his fiction. Accompanying presentation slides and full text may be viewed here.



Tolkien: Faith and Fiction

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 Liverpool Hope University, November 2016.

David Alton, Lord Alton of Liverpool.


This year, 2016, marks 50 years since, in 1966, the English edition of the Jerusalem Bible was published.


The translation was undertaken here at Hope, at what was Christ’s College, my old College. The work was led by the brilliant scripture scholar, Fr.Alexander Jones.

J.R.R.Tolkien was one of those who contributed to the translation and it includes his translation of the Book of Jonah and an acknowledgement of his role.

Fr.Henry Wansborough OSB said “It was the first translation of the whole Bible into modern English to appear. It was an iconic presentation of the best of Catholic biblical scholarship in the previous half century.”

When, in 1969, I came here as a student, my first purchase was a still greatly prized and now well-worn copy of the JB, the Jerusalem Bible.

Jonah is among the books of the prophets – and once given the Word they are compelled to speak it: Amos cries “The Lord Yahweh speaks, who can refuse to prophesy?”

And of Jonah and the other prophets, Alexander Jones said “At a point in each of their lives each received an irresistible divine call and was chosen as God’s envoy. The price of attempting to elude this vocation is stated in the early part of the story of Jonah.”

He says Jonah is unlike the other prophetic books because “this short work is entirely narrative. It tells the story of a disobedient prophet who first struggles to evade his divine mission and then complains to God that his mission has, against his expectations, been successful.”

I can’t help speculating that Alexander Jones may have had another reluctant hero in his mind when he asked the creator of home-loving risk-averse reluctant-hero Hobbits to collaborate in the translation of the Book of Jonah.

And like many aspects of Tolkien’s work, Fr.Jones reminds us that the story of Jonah which he describes as a droll adventure, taking us from the “the belly of Sheol” – to the city of Nineveh, is precisely that – a story, not history; a “didactic work” that is “intended to amuse and instruct” and which “proclaims an astonishingly broadminded catholicity.”  

God is merciful to all, even to the rebellious Jonah. The lessons of mercy, humility and repentance are given to the Chosen People at the hands of their sworn enemies.

You can see why Tolkien would have been entirely at home with this Book and these themes.

The Book of Jonah concludes with God explaining, with great love mixed with some gentle irony, that He will not only be merciful to Jonah, the reluctant prophet, but also to the repentant Ninevehites and their little children “who cannot tell their right hand from their left,” and proclaiming still further, His love of all His Creation “to say nothing of all the animals.” 


The story of Jonah is also a dramatic prefiguring of the only story which really matters: Jonah’s three days in the belly of the great fish prepares us for Christ’s three days in the tomb. Fr.Jones says that at this moment in the Old Testament “We are on the threshold of the Gospel.”

Tolkien would describe such a turn of events in a story as a “eucatastrophe,”   – a word to which I will return at the conclusion of my remarks.

I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth.” 


For Tolkien the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ of human history was the resurrection of Christ from the tomb. So its preconfiguration in the biblical Book of Jonah is a pretty good place to start when considering Tolkien, Faith and Fiction.


Tolkien, himself, said that The Lord of the Rings was “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”. What did he mean by that and what clues are there in the characters, the tales within the tale, and within the plot itself?  


Let me divide my remarks into 3 parts:

  1. How Tolkien’s experiences shaped his beliefs;
  2. What Tolkien tells us himself; and
  3.  How faith shapes the characters, and the story lines.



  • 1. How Tolkien’s experiences shaped his beliefs.


Born in Bloemfontein, in the Orange Free State, in 1892, his father died in 1896, and his mother, Mabel Suffield, returned to England, to the Midlands. Her conversion to Catholicism, in 1900, led to her rejection by her mixed Baptist, Unitarian and Anglican relatives. She was reduced to poverty.

Struggling as a widow, and shunned by her family, Mabel sought solace and help from the Catholic community of the Birmingham Oratory.


The Birmingham Oratory – whose full title is the Congregation of the Oratory of St.Philip Neri and is located in the Edgbaston district of Birmingham, was founded in 1849 by Blessed John Henry Newman, who died in 1890, two years before Tolkien’s birth. 

It was the first house of that Congregation in England and Newman, a celebrated Catholic convert, had been given permission by Pope Pius IX to establish a community of Oratorians in England and Newman lived a secluded life there for the best part of four decades.


Newman had died only ten years before Tolkien, in his childhood, spent nine years as a parishioner of St. Philip’s and attended the parish school before winning his scholarship to the Birmingham’s King Edward’s school.

In 1904, after the death of his mother at the age of 34, a death “hastened by the persecution of her faith”, as Tolkien remarked in 1941, he was shunted between relatives until a lodging was found for him by an Oratorian priest, Father Francis Morgan, who was his legal guardian.

In 1963 Tolkien wrote about the effect that these experiences and formative years had on him: “I witnessed (half comprehending) the heroic sufferings and early death in extreme poverty of my mother who brought me into the Church.”

His great closeness and devotion to the Theotokos – Mary, the Mother of God – began with the premature death of his own mother. He said that Mary “refined so much of our gross manly natures and emotions as well as warming and colouring our hard, bitter, religion.”

Of Fr.Francis he wrote: “I first learnt charity and forgiveness from him” and he said that he taught him the story of his Faith “piercing even the ‘liberal’ darkness out of which I came, knowing more about ‘Bloody Mary’ than the Mother of Jesus – who was never mentioned except as an object of wicked worship by the Romanists.”

The backdrop to Tolkien’s childhood was rejection and sectarianism but his connection with the Oratory gave him a love of the mystery of the sacraments but it also taught him to honour Scripture and tradition along with the teaching authority of the Church, grounded in the apostolic succession. He believed that Christ was, in the words of Newman’s hymn, Praise to the Holiest in the Heights, the Second Adam who to the rescue had come – sanctifying history and saving each of us.

And can we not see in Tolkien’s fiction, and the quest and mission of the Hobbit, something of Newman’s belief that:

“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. ..I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons….”

Newman had been the most influential Catholic in the English speaking world during the nineteenth century and his Apologia and love of St.Augustine were the scaffold on which Tolkien’ s faith was hung.

Newman had insisted that “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”; that “We are answerable for what we choose to believe.” that “Nothing would be done at all if one waited until one could do it so well that no one could find fault with it”; that Growth is the only evidence of life.” That “fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall never have a beginning” and that “The love of our private friends is the only preparatory exercise for the love of all men”.


The young Tolkien would have heard a great deal about Newman and studied him carefully – not least his famous treatise on the purpose of a university – the world in which he would spend his professional life:

“The University’s…. function is intellectual culture… It educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it.”


   While at King Edward’s, Tolkien and three friends, Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Smith and Christopher Wiseman formed a secret society which they called the “T.C.B.S.” – the acronym meaning “Tea Club and Barrovian Society”. The name had its origins in their fondness for drinking tea at the nearby Barrow’s Stores and, illicitly, in the library of their school.

   From King Edward’s, Tolkien won an exhibition to Exeter College, Oxford in 1910, and graduated with First Class Honours in 1915.

    He showed early promise as a philologist and gifted linguist with a remarkable facility to decode ancient languages. He used these gifts in scholarship and in prose and the study of legend, folklore and poetry.

   In 1914 he read a poem by the Anglo-Saxon Christian poet, Cynewulf. He wrote later about how two lines of the poem Crist (Christ) remained with him:

Eala Earendel engla beorhtast

Ofer middangeard monnum sended!

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels,

Above the middle-earth sent unto men!


The friends of the T.C.B.S stayed in touch after leaving school, and in that same year, 1914, met at Wiseman’s London home for a “Council.” 

In many respects the T.C.B.S foreshadowed the Kolbitar (Coalbiters) which Tolkien would form at Oxford in 1925 – and which was devoted to reading Icelandic sagas. Lewis attended their meetings and, in the 1930s, from this fellowship of friends would finally emerge the Inklings – more of which, later.


In Birmingham Tolkien had met Edith Bratt, with whom he fell in love; he also commenced his practice of daily Mass attendance, which he continued throughout his life.

Fr.Morgan counselled him not to rush into marriage but, having been commissioned into the Lancashire Fusiliers, he feared that he might be killed. He and Edith, who was received into the Catholic Church, married in 1916.

 After seeing action in the Somme, acting as Battalion Signalling Officer – and, having contracted trench fever, Tolkien spent the rest of the war as an invalid.

The news from his friends in the TCBS was bleak. On July 15, 1916, Geoffrey Smith wrote to tell Tolkien of Rob Gilson’s death: My Dear John Ronald, I saw in the paper this morning that Rob has been killed. I am safe but what does that matter? Do please stick to me, you and Christopher. I am very tired and most frightfully depressed at this worst news. Now one realises in despair what the T.C.B.S. really was. O my dear John Ronald whatever are we going to do?  Yours ever.    G. B. S.


 Five months later, Christopher Wiseman wrote to Tolkien to say that Smith had died in a mission. Just before seeing this final action Smith wrote these words to Tolkien: 

My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight – I am off on duty in a few minutes – there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S. Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! A discovery I am going to communicate to Rob before I go off tonight. And do you write it also to Christopher. May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot.” – Yours ever, G.B.S.


Like C.S.Lewis, and so many of his generation, Tolkien was deeply affected by World War One and the death of his friends.


As his closest intimates were cut down, it put an end to the circle of friends and, challenged by Smith’s haunting words: “may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them”, Tolkien began to write his epic mythology on a notebook entitled “The Book of Lost Tales.” The tales would come to be known as “The Silmarillion.”


The hobbits entered his imagination in 1929, while marking examination papers, when Tolkien started to jot down some words for a story to read to his children – of whom there were now four:  “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. Tolkien would later say of himself: “I am in fact a Hobbit, in all but size…I like gardens, trees…I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking…” 

 Tolkien was like his hobbits, dreaming of eggs and bacon.

 Like the Book of Jonah, Tolkien’s tales have an extraordinary catholicity – an equal appeal to the Deist, atheist, agnostic or Pagan reader, of all ages and backgrounds. Like Jonah it is not about historical truth – although Middle Earth feels like a place that once existed – it is a story which provides sign posts to the ultimate Truth as well as sign posts about how we should relate to one another, about friendship, courage, honesty, integrity and the seemingly endless battles that we are each destined to fight on our journeys; how the ring is representative of tyrannical power, pride, temptation, addiction and sin.  In this sense The Lord of the Rings is a “true” story.


   It resonates with Tolkien’s own experiences and the time in which it was written – although he always insisted it was not allegory but rather might have applicability to those times and to all times.


     In his wonderful book, “The Power of the Ring” the late Stratford Caldecott, said of Tolkien’s work “at an even deeper level it is about the reality and value of beauty…the homely beauty of firelight and good cheer, the rich natural beauty of tree and forest, the awesome majesty of mountains, the charm of babbling stream, the high and remote glimmer of the stars…recalling the mystery that lies beyond the beauties of this world, and awaken a longing in the human heart that will never be quite content in Middle-earth.”


By contrast, Edmund Wilson described The Lord of the Rings as “juvenile trash” while that angry atheist, Philip Pullman, author of “His Dark Materials” has called The Lord of the Rings “trivial”:

“Tolkien was a Catholic, for whom the basic issues of life were not in question… So nowhere in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is there a moment’s doubt about those big questions. No-one is in any doubt about what’s good or bad; everyone knows where the good is, and what to do about the bad. Enormous as it is, TLOTR is consequently trivial”

When the first volume of The Lord of the Rings was published Tolkien knew that he was leaving himself open to inevitable scorn, writing, “I have expressed my heart to be shot at”.

Last year was the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of the Return of the King – the third and final volume of Lord of The Rings.

Pullman and others might note that the trilogy has sold a phenomenal 150 million copies worldwide; in 1997 it was Voted Amazon’s Best Book of the Century emerged as the most popular work of fiction in surveys by Waterstones and Channel Four and was second only to the Bible in its readership.

The Lord of the Rings sits alongside his wonderful short stories and The Silmarillion, posthumously brought to publication by his son, Christopher.

Pullman’s assessment was wrong about the book’s deep and abiding appeal and it is far from “trivial” – quite the reverse – and he was also wrong in stating that Tolkien’s was an unquestioning faith and that he had no doubts.

Referring to his doubts during a particularly arid period in the 1920s he said it was the Blessed Sacrament that kept his then flickering faith alive. He told his son, Michael “I brought you all up ill and talked to you too little. Out of wickedness and sloth I almost ceased to practice my religion…Not for me the Hound of Heaven but the never ceasing silent appeal to the Tabernacle and the sense of starving hunger.”

To consolidate his faith, he practiced and recommended frequent Confession and the frequent reception of Holy Communion, telling his son, Michael, who taught Classics at Stonyhurst College and St Mary’s Hall in Lancashire, “I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity and the true way of all your loves upon earth.” 

In Oxford, he served Mass every day at Blackfriars. The Mass was celebrated by his fellow Inkling, Fr.Gervase Matthew OP. It is said that  Whitacres’s Roman soldier, nailing Jesus to the Cross in the Stations of the Cross at Blackfriars is modelled on Tolkien’s orc.


Tolkien taught his children to love the Created world, especially the trees, and he persuaded Michael, to plant a copse in his Stonyhurst garden, evidence of which can still be seen today.

From 1939, after Mussolini joined forces with Hitler, Tolkien became a regular visitor to Stonyhurst when his oldest son, John, returned to England from seminary in Rome to continue his training as a priest. Stonyhurst – with its connections to the Shireburn family, to the recusants and Catholic martyrs, complete with its own Shire Lane in its village, with its two rivers and ancient forest and views of Pendle Hill, with its occult history, was an inspiring setting for Tolkien – captured beautifully today in the Ribble Valley Tolkien Trail.


Tolkien passed on his love of the Catholic faith to each of his children and encouraged his son, Christopher, to memorise some of the most tried and trusted prayers but also the entire text of the Latin Mass, saying that “If you have these by heart you never need for words of joy”; and he prayed the rosary, keeping a rosary by his bed and in his hands as he looked for Nazi bombers while part of the Oxford Watch during World War Two. 

Towards the end of his life – even while the Jerusalem Bible was in the final stages of composition –Tolkien recoiled at liturgical changes and at what he regarded as a loss of beauty in both reverence for the Holy Eucharist and the sacraments and for the liturgy itself.

He was saddened but became reconciled to the use of the vernacular rather than Latin for the celebration of Mass but he deplored the use of sloppy language.  He said that the encouragement of the faithful to receive Communion regularly and to attend daily Mass would have had a more profound effect on the Church than the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

The changes led him to say “the Church which once felt like a refuge now often feels like a trap. There is nowhere else to go! I think there is nothing to do but pray for the Church, the Vicar of Christ, and for ourselves; and meanwhile to exercise the virtue of loyalty, which indeed only becomes a virtue when one is under pressure to desert it.”  His grandson, Simon, wrote that he could “vividly remember going to church with him in Bournemouth.” He said that his grandfather didn’t agree with the liturgical changes “and made all the responses very loudly in Latin while the rest of the congregation answered in English. I found the whole experience quite excruciating, but my grandfather was oblivious. He simply had to do what he believed to be right.”

His belief in the sacrament of marriage and the love of family remained with him until the very end.  When Tolkien died, on September 2nd, 1973 aged 81, he underscored that inseparability and indissolubility, by being interred in the same grave as his wife, Edith, who had died two years earlier.  The names of Luthien and Beren appear on their tombstone.


In Tolkien’s Middle Earth Legendarium Luthien was the most beautiful of all the children of Iluvatar and forsook her immortality for her love of the mortal warrior Beren. The Silmarillion

The Hobbit


Fr.Robert Murray SJ


So much then for the experiences that shaped Tolkien. 

  1. What does Tolkien Tells Us Himself about his faith?

While once on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament he personally experienced in a vision the blinding presence of God: “I perceived or thought of the Light of God” and saw his own Guardian Angel as a manifestation of “God’s very attention”. 

As a Catholic he believed God is the Creator of the universe and that God had made the world out of nothing. Whether in the Bible or in Tolkien’s Silmarillion all that is has been created by the Word of God when, as we learn in the Book of Job, “the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God made a joyful melody.”

But as we also learn from The Silmarillion – as in the biblical story of Creation – we see the creativity  of Iluvatar, the One, and his first creations, the Ainur, the Holy Ones, contested by Melkor, “the greatest of the Ainur” who, like Lucifer, falls as he succumbs to the sin of pride and seeks to subvert both men and elves.

As G.K.Chesterton said of such pride, and as Tolkien himself believed: “Pride does not go before a fall, pride is the fall.”

That Tolkien’s faith was based on personal encounter with God and a deep spirituality is revealed in an exchange that he had with a stranger (whom he identified with Gandalf) and who said to him “Of course, you don’t suppose, do you, that you wrote all that book yourself?” Tolkien replied “Pure Gandalf!…I think I said “No, I don’t suppose so any longer.” I have never since been able to suppose so. An alarming conclusion for an old philologist to draw concerning his private amusement. But not one that should puff up anyone who considers the imperfections of “chosen instruments”, and indeed what sometimes seems their lamentable unfitness for the purpose.”  

    All the elements, from the genesis and “the great music” of “The Silmarillion” to the awesome climax at Mount Doom, take us from the alpha of creation to the omega of judgement. This is a story that exists for itself. 


    Tolkien tells us that: 


“The Lord of The Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously at first, but consciously in the revision”. Elsewhere he states “I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic”. In 1958 he wrote that The Lord of the Rings is “a tale, which is built on or out of certain ‘religious’ ideas, but is not an allegory of them.”


In 1956 in a letter to Amy Ronald he wrote:


“I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect “history” to be anything but a long defeat – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.” 


Tolkien also said that his writing reflected his beliefs about death, immortality and resurrection.


In 1958, in a letter to Rhona Beare, Tolkien wrote:


“I might say that if the tale is ‘about’ anything it is not as seems widely supposed about ‘power.’ …It is mainly concerned with Death and Immortality.”


The Ring Rhyme that opens each volume of The Lord of the Rings reminds us of the order of Creation and that we cannot cheat our maker:


“Three rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,

Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,

Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die…”


The Silmarillion reminds us:


“Death is their fate, the gift of Iluvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy. But Melkor has cast his shadow upon it, and confounded it with darkness, and brought evil out of good and fear out of hope.”


Tolkien believed in the Catholic concept of Natural Law and in the natural order of things; that we must be good stewards of creation and guardians of the beauty that God has bestowed upon the created world.


He foresaw the battles over euthanasia, genetics and the immortality sought and craved through genetics and human cloning – the powerful temptation (shared by some of the men and elves of Tolkien’s realm) to artificially manipulate our allotted span of life and to upend Natural Law and to usurp the role of the Creator. 


Tolkien and C.S.Lewis had read and were inspired by the writings of the Catholic convert G.K.Chesterton, who died in 1936, the year in which The Hobbit was completed.  In 1922 Chesterton’s last book before becoming a Catholic was “Eugenics and Other Evils” in which he stood against Margaret Sanger and the other early cheer leaders for the Nazis and who literally argued for “More Children for the Fit. Less for the Unfit.” Sanger made it clear whom she considered unfit: “Hebrews, Slavs, Catholics, and Negroes.”


Chesterton argued that if people dared to challenge science without ethics, such as eugenics or cloning, attempts are made to belittle them with “the same stuffy science, the same bullying bureaucracy, and the same terrorism by tenth-rate professors.” 


Tolkien shared Chesterton’s loathing of eugenics and in 1938 condemned Nazi “race-doctrine” as “wholly pernicious and unscientific”. And, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he described the scientists who had created the atomic bomb as “these lunatic physicists” and “Babel-builders.”


Three years after Eugenics and Other Evils, Chesterton published his “The Everlasting Man” (1925) which disputed H.G.Wells’ view that civilisation was merely an extension of animal life and that Christ was no more than a charismatic figure. In contesting this, Chesterton said Christianity had “died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” Neither he nor Tolkien had any doubt about the Divinity of Christ, the Son of God.


In The Everlasting Man Chesterton paints the canvas of humanity’s spiritual journey and portrays Christianity as the bedrock of western civilisation.


Later, C.S.Lewis said that the combination of Chesterton’s apologetics and George MacDonald’s stories had between them shaped his intellect and imagination.


In 1947 Lewis wrote to Rhonda Bodle that   “the [very] best popular defence of the full Christian position I know is G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man.”  Having abandoned his atheism Lewis wryly remarked that a young man who is serious about his atheism cannot be too careful about what he reads.


Tolkien and Lewis were also influenced by Chesterton’s belief in Merrie England as an antidote to the pernicious dehumanisation represented by over industrialisation and the servile State.  


The culture of the Shire is the culture of Merrie England. 


Victorian Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics saw Merrie England as representing the abundance and generosity of gifts we so easily squander or spoil. There was something here of Thomas More’s Utopia and a desire to return to an idyllic pastoral way of life that had been superseded by the smoking chimneys and crushed character of 1930s Britain.


Chesterton saw Merrie England in the guise of the country inn, the Sunday roast, conversation around the fireside, through the medieval Guilds, arts and crafts. Tolkien captured these ideas in the people of the Shire.


He always made clear his intense hatred of the rapacious destruction of the English countryside and the desirability of the simple life.  For most of his life Tolkien used a bicycle rather than a car, of which he though there were too many although it is unclear whether, like his Hobbits, he looked forward to two breakfasts


Tolkien and Lewis took from Chesterton their profound belief in the human dignity of every person, each made in the likeness and image of God. The castrating unmanning of men (“men without chests”) was captured by Lewis in “The Abolition of Man” (1943) and grotesque scientific brutalism is the theme of his novel “That Hideous Strength” (1945).


In 1930 Chesterton had observed that When people begin to ignore human dignity, it will not be long before they begin to ignore human rights.”


And in his Autobiography (1936) he wrote this:

“I did not really understand what I meant by Liberty, until I heard it called by the new name of Human Dignity. It was a new name to me; though it was part of a creed nearly two thousand years old. In short, I had blindly desired that a man should be in possession of something, if it were only his own body. In so far as materialistic concentration proceeds, a man will be in possession of nothing; not even his own body. Already there hover on the horizon sweeping scourges of sterilisation or social hygiene, applied to everybody and imposed by nobody. At least I will not argue here with what are quaintly called the scientific authorities on the other side. I have found one authority on my side.”


Like Chesterton, Tolkien also insisted on the teaching authority of the Church and the Pope.


He said of the papacy: “I myself am convinced by the Petrine claims…for me the Church of which the Pope is the acknowledged head on earth has as chief claim that it is the one that has (and still does) ever defended the Blessed Sacrament, and given it most honour, and put it (as Christ plainly intended) in the prime place. “Feed my sheep” was his last charge to St.Peter.”



Chesterton and Tolkien also had a shared love of the Virgin Mary. In his poem “The Black Virgin” Chesterton describes Mary “a morning star” – “sunlight and moonlight are thy luminous shadows, starlight and twilight thy refractions are, lights and half-lights and all lights turn about thee.”


Tolkien gives his elves an invocation to Elbereth “We still remember, we who dwell in this far land beneath the trees, The Starlight on the Western seas” words redolent of a Marian hymn which describes Mary as the “guide of the wanderer”, as “the ocean star”, “mother of Christ, star of the sea”.


In a letter to Fr. Robert Murray SJ, Tolkien said of the Virgin Mary “Our Lady, upon which all my own small perceptions of beauty, both in majesty and simplicity is founded”. Elsewhere he had said: “I attribute whatever there is of beauty and goodness in my work to the Holy Mother of God.”


Tolkien saw Mary as the closest of all beings to Christ, as literally “full of grace” describing her as “unstained” and that “she had committed no evil deeds.” He saw her as the Christ bearer who paves the way for the Incarnation: about which he says “the Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write.”


As well as is love of Mary, Tolkien had a traditional Catholic belief in the Communion of Saints – the companions of Christ throughout all the ages. He would have been delighted by the beatification in Birmingham, in 2010, by Pope Benedict of John Henry Newman. The collegiality – the fellowship – of Newman’s Oratorians appealed to Tolkien.


Newman insisted – and Tolkien believed – that there is some unique task assigned to each of us that has not been assigned to any other. The challenge is to discern it.


Newman’s prayer on “Purpose” emphasises each person’s unique gifts, their unique talents, and their unique destiny. he emphasised that we do not need to be perfect before using those talents. He said this about the use of gifts:


“What are great gifts but the correlative of great work? We are not born for ourselves, but for our kind, for our neighbours, for our country: it is but selfishness, indolence, a perverse fastidiousness, an unmanliness, and no virtue or praise, to bury our talent in a napkin.”


Or, for that matter, hide them in a private hobbit hole.


Tolkien loved the feasts and seasons of the Church and the ever growing company of saints. In 1925, when Tolkien was 33, the little flower” – the Carmelite nun, Saint Therese of Lisieux, was canonised. Her “little way” contradicted the elevation of power and the mobilisation of vast armies: “I only love simplicity. I have a horror of pretence” she said. “It is impossible for me to grow bigger, so I put up with myself as I am, with all my countless faults. But I will look for some means of going to heaven by a little way which is very short and very straight, a little way that is quite new.”


It sounds like a manifesto for Hobbiton.


Central, too, to Tolkien’s faith was his love of the Blessed Sacrament. He told his son Michael that “The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion….frequency is of the highest effect.” He described the Holy Eucharist as “the one great thing to love on earth” and that in “the Blessed Sacrament you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that….eternal endurance which every man’s heart desires.”




And in all these battles Tolkien seeks the Viaticum which is given through the last of the seven Sacraments and which is provided as daily sustenance through the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist stating:


 “I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning and by the mercy of God never have fallen out again”



These then are some of the “certain ‘religious’ ideas” that inspired Tolkien.



Doubtless, all of these beliefs and ideas were the subject of discussion when the Inklings met at the Eagle and Child – the Bird and Baby – between the 1930s and 1949. The group was led by Tolkien and Lewis but also included Tolkien’s son, Christopher, Roger Lancelyn Green, Hugo Dyson, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams and Lord David Cecil.


But it was particularly the companionship of C.S.Lewis that strengthened the faith of both men.


It is now 90 years since J.R.R.Tolkien and C.S.Lewis met as Oxford academics.

It was the beginning of a friendship kindled by common experiences and which produced some of the most wonderful fiction of the twentieth century but which had its origins in the shared horrors of the Great War.

   Lewis once wrote that “There’s no sound I like better than male laughter” – and it was in the early 1930s that he began to cultivate his friendship with the new Professor of Anglo-Saxon, appointed in 1925. Throughout those highly productive years – and as he journeyed from atheism to Christian belief – Lewis became close to Tolkien.       


   In 1933 they began to hold meetings in college rooms and on Tuesday mornings at The Eagle and Child. Tolkien later wrote that “CSL had a passion for hearing things read aloud.” The Inklings met regularly during the next two decades.


   Although Tolkien would later be displaced in Lewis’ affections, and a rift opened between them, these gatherings inestimably enriched them both.


Lewis would write of the importance of such friendship in “The Four Loves”: “He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company. Especially when the whole group is together, each bringing out all that is best, wisest or funniest in all the others.”


The Inklings were conceived as a circle of friends which would practice solidarity and engender camaraderie; intuitively and challengingly counter cultural.


For Lewis the Inklings also provided a familial intimacy which his own family could not. Tolkien was crucial in his own journey to faith.


He recorded the moment when, in 1931, he decided to embrace Christianity: “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ – in Christianity. …My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”


Two year earlier he had come to believe in God: 


   “In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England…The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”  


Lewis and Tolkien did not believe Christians needed to be morose or detached.  In 1944 The Daily Telegraph misleadingly referred to Lewis as “an ascetic”.  Tolkien scoffed at this in a letter to his son: “Ascetic Mr. Lewis!!! I ask you! He put away three pints in a very short session we had this morning and said he was ‘going short for Lent.’”


Their friendship was based on the joy to which Lewis gave so much emphasis in his writing and captured by Tolkien in this verse from Lord of the Rings

“Ho! Ho! Ho!

To the bottle I go To heal my heart and drown my woe Rain may fall, and wind may blow And many miles be still to go But under a tall tree will I lie And let the clouds go sailing by”


For two men formed in the harrowing trenches of the Great War, who had seen so many of their friends pay the ultimate price, pain and suffering did not disable or incapacitate them. Both believed that beyond the pain and the suffering of today is the certainty of eternity. Both believed that through their story telling they could encourage their readers to see beyond the catastrophic and destructive effects of war and the evil in our world to a hopeful and joyous future.



So much, then, for Tolkien’s beliefs and the experiences which shaped him.


  • 2.  How does that faith shape the characters, and the story lines?



Although Tolkien despised simple allegory he invites us to use the stories, the plots, the characters, and to examine their “applicability.” He said that his objective had been to “make a body of more or less connected legend…drawing splendour from vast backcloths…The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.”  He said that his work should be “dedicated simply to England, to my country.”


This suggests that he wants us to explore his amazing and extraordinary landscape to discover things that are important about how we live and behave towards one another.


Tolkien insisted that notwithstanding the Redemption of man “the Christian still has to work, with mind as well as body” and he said that “in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”


We are being invited to decipher his elvish runes and games of riddles, leaving us scope to draw what conclusions we may but this is an invitation to meet our Creator through legend and myth, fantasy and story-telling.


And the Lord of the Rings is riddled with wisdom and common sense about everything from the nature of friendship to the place of courage:



“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”


“I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”


It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.”


“Little by little, one travels far.”


“Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate”


 “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”


“It’s a dangerous business going out your front door.”


“Courage is found in unlikely places.”


But central must be an understanding of power and evil represented by the Ring itself:

“The Board is set, the pieces are moving. we come to it at last, the great battle of our time.”

 Stratford Caldecott believed that the Ring exemplifies “the dark magic of the corrupted will, the assertion of self in disobedience to God. It appears to give freedom, but its true function is to enslave the wearer to the Fallen Angel. It corrodes the human will of the wearer, rendering him increasingly “thin” and unreal; indeed, its gift of invisibility symbolizes this ability to destroy all natural human relationships and identity. You could say the Ring is sin itself: tempting and seemingly harmless to begin with, increasingly hard to give up and corrupting in the long run


The Ring and the forces at work capture the endless contest between good and evil. It represents naked power and crude evil bringing with it temptation and corruption, violence and death.




As the ring bearer struggles towards his destiny many die before the evil forces of Sauron are at last subdued; and even then Saruman remains at large in the Shire – evil and sin are still at work, waiting to ensnare us.


For the Christian, the use of evil to overcome evil is a frequent temptation. Frodo, Gandalf and the Lady Galadriel all understand that if they use the ring to overcome the Dark Lord then they too will become enslaved by evil.


The general weakness of humanity (which can be taken to cover not only mankind, but all creatures in The Lord of the Rings) reminds us that humanity is fundamentally good, but that those who fall turn to evil. 


All that is evil was once good – Elrond says, “Nothing was evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.”  In this commentary and in the fallen orcs – which were themselves once elves – we can surely see the story of the fall.


Temptation appears first in The Hobbit as the travellers are warned as they enter Mirkwood, don’t drink the water and don’t stray from the path. How like the descendants of Adam, who when urged not to eat at the forbidden tree choose do so anyway.


The temptation of the Serpent is reflected in Boromir’s temptation by the Ring, as well as in Gollum’s.  In Gollum we also see the idea of a conscience – he fights with himself and with his conscience while he is being tempted.  The theologian Colin Gunton was of the opinion that the way in which the Ring tempts people to use its power is analogous to Jesus’ temptation by the devil.


Other aspects of evil also recur in the book.  The destructive nature of evil is there in the Scouring of the Shire, and in the way in which Saruman’s troops destroy the trees and the timeless quality of Shire life, something especially abhorrent to Tolkien. The orcs themselves are cannibals, and are hideous – showing how evil corrupts. The dark and barren lands of Mordor are the very face of evil.


Connected with this is the self-destructive nature of evil. Inherent in evil is the desire to dominate, rule and have power over others.



After Gollum falls to the power of the Ring, he is consumed by its power, and he becomes weakened to such an extent that he can no longer resist it. Even getting close to evil has a subverting effect: take Bilbo’s reluctance to give up the Ring, and its disappearance from the mantle piece and reappearance in his pocket. Or, despite his epic and heroic journey into darkness, Frodo ultimately fails to throw the ring into the furnace. Here is the powerful mixture of the intoxicating allure of the forbidden with our human weakness and frailty.


Yet, despite his failure, in Frodo’s “little way” of self-sacrifice and willingness to take on seemingly impossible odds we see a central tenet of Christian belief.  And think of those unlikely victories over seemingly intractable and daunting odds such as at Helm’s Deep. Even when evil appears to be triumphing – such as when Sauron gloats over what he considers to be the foolhardiness of Aragorn’s troops as they march towards Mordor, he is defeated by them.



Evil also brings with it desolation, barrenness and the destruction of beauty.


Compare the destruction of Isengard, and the brutality of the orcs, with the simple homely life of the Shire. An image that Tolkien repeatedly uses is that of dark and light.  Contrast the Shire and Mordor (“where the shadows lie”) – The Shire which contains so much of the England Tolkien loved, and Mordor, the dark and sinister land where Sauron and Mount Doom are to be found, and which contains so much of the England that Tolkien hated.


Compare, too, the man-eating trolls and orcs with the elves – the disfigured (fallen) creatures and the beautiful and immortal elves – comparable to the angelic hosts. Recall the crucial role of the eagles and remember Isaiah 40:31 that “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”



Even in his use of names Tolkien’s sign posts take us to places and people that seem good or bad – Galadriel, Aragorn, Frodo and Arwen are beautiful-sounding names, whereas Wormtongue, the Balrog, Mordor and Mount Doom -all unlikely to be forces for good.


But although we encounter evil we are encouraged never to lose sight of what is good:


“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”


In the Lady Galadriel the reader can be allowed to see something of the purity and beauty of the Virgin Mary; Galadriel’s grand-daughter, Arwen, also has a Marian role, saving both Frodo’s life and soul as she utters the words – not in the original text but crafted by Peter Jackson, who in his use of the word grace makes a more explicitly religious statement than even Tolkien himself –

“What grace is given me, let it pass to him. Let him be spared.”


Galadriel bestows upon the Fellowship seven mystical gifts, which are surely analogous to the seven sacraments, and as such are real signs of grace, and not mere symbols.


In the provision of lembas, we can see the Holy Eucharist. Before the Fellowship depart from Lorien they have a final supper where the mystical elvish bread lembas is shared, and they all drink from a common cup. The immortal elves are nourished by the lembas, the mystical bread – the bread of angels – which both nourishes and heals.


Lembas, we are told, “had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone, and did not mingle it with other goods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure.” This allusion reminds us of the manna that fed the people of Israel or the German mystic, Theresa Neumann, who survived by eating nothing other than the Holy Eucharist.  


We can see Christ-like qualities in Aragorn. He has a kingdom to come into, a bride to wed. One powerful image is of the “Hands of the Healer” – in the Houses of Healing: Aragorn, the King, has the ability to heal people by touching them with his hands. Another King had the touch that healed Jairus’ daughter, the centurion’s servant, the lepers, the blind man and the sick who were lowered through the roof at Capaernum. 


Aragorn, Gandalf, and Frodo all have Christ like marks – with Aragorn the king entering his kingdom, the return of whom everyone is expecting;


In Gandalf we are also confronted by Resurrection –a life beyond the present is evoked as  Gandalf dies after he fights the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum; but returns – and is initially unrecognised, strengthened as Gandalf the White; recalling Gethsemane and Emmaus.


Gandalf’s transformation tells us something about the Christian idea of justice, which is at the heart of the book. In the end, everyone gets what they deserve.  Saruman starts off as Saruman the White, but following his fall, ends up as Saruman of Many Colours. The order of “rank” in the wizard hierarchy holds white as the highest, followed by grey and then brown; they almost sound like orders of monks and friars with Gandalf the Grey becoming Gandalf the White.


There is even a sort of papacy in the wizard Gandalf – after all, he acts as leader to the free and faithful people, and he even crowns kings, as did popes of old. And as a spiritual father to Frodo, who tells Gandalf that he wishes he had not been born into such a time as this that “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”



There is the further thought that along with Galdalf’s papal colour of white, the name of the Pope’s summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, is translated into English as Gandolf’s Castle. Perhaps it means nothing; perhaps it is another elvish rune.



In Boromir we see a willingness to lay down his life for his friends (made all the more remarkable because of his earlier attempt to seize the ring by force and by his subsequent repentance). Boromir is rewarded for his repentance by dying a hero’s death by an orc’s arrow and being given a hero’s funeral.  All of the fallen characters are given a chance to repent, although most of them– such as Wormtongue, Gollum and Saruman – unlike Boromir, do not.



In Frodo, we see a willingness both to serve and to carry his burden. The very future of Middle Earth is at stake, and it is the Fellowship which wins salvation for Middle Earth, although not without cost, including self-sacrifice.


Elrond tells Frodo that it is his destiny to be a ring bearer; but this is no pleasurable occupation. Frodo, like Christ, takes up his cross.


Throughout the quest Frodo’s strength in increasingly sapped by the burden he carries and of which he seeks to be rid.  His stumbling approach to Mordor, under the Eye of Sauron, is like the faltering steps of Christ weighed down by his Cross as he repeatedly falls on the path to Golgotha; and, like Christ, Frodo is tempted by despair.



Indeed, Frodo does succumb. His free will, hitherto so strong in resisting the powers of the Ring, gives way to the power of the Ring, and he cannot bring himself to throw it down into the fires of Mount Doom. Despite all his inner strength Frodo gradually succumbs to a dark fascination with the ring and he loses his free spirit and free will the closer he comes in proximity to Mount Doom


Enter here the Christian foot soldier, Samwise Gamgee.


My own favourite character in The Lord of the Rings is based on the private soldiers Tolkien encountered at the Somme in 1916:


“My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 War, and recognised as so far superior to myself.”


Sam’s humility turns him into the greatest hero in the book.  Although he is only Frodo’s gardener, it is he who saves Frodo and ultimately the Shire. Mary Magdalene, in her first resurrection encounter with the Lord mistakes Jesus, thinking that he too is only a gardener.  Tolkien is reminding us that so often we miss what is important about the people we meet, what matters most, and too frequently judge them by the job they do or their social origins.


Sam is like Simon of Cyrene, sharing his Master’s burden and at the climax his devoted loyalty in following Frodo to the very end is rewarded as the burden is lightened and he is transfigured. 


Stratford Caldecott quotes Tolkien as saying that the plot is concerned with ‘the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble’ – and the meek Sam certainly inherits the earth.  


At a crucial moment in Mordor he must carry the Ringbearer, and even the Ring itself.  He moves from immature innocence to mature innocence: and finally, in his own world (that is, in Tolkien’s inner world of the Shire), this ‘gardener’ becomes a ‘king’ or at least a Mayor.  The fact is that Frodo could not have fulfilled his task without the continuing presence of Sam, and he relies utterly on him; yet Sam remains humble always and faithful to his master.


Through Sam Tolkien also reminds us of the Christian virtue of mercy and the role of Providence. Sam would have gladly disposed of Gollum whom he sees as a threat to Frodo. Gandalf commends Frodo for showing mercy and tells us that even Gollum may one day have his moment. As the ring is committed to the depths that Providence comes to pass.


As Sam, who begins the story by eavesdropping, returns to the Shire there is something of the Catholic love of order, tradition and a longing for restoration of that which has been lost.


Sam insists “there is some good in this world. And it’s worth fighting for.” 


The fight culminates on a specific date: March 25th. It is the day on which the Ring is finally destroyed at Mount Doom. Gandalf tells Frodo “the New Year will always now begin on the 25th of March when Sauron fell, and you were brought out of the fire to the King.”  


Tom Shippey, in “The Road to Middle Earth”, says that in “Anglo-Saxon belief, and in European popular tradition both before and after that, March 25th is the date of the Crucifixion”, and it is also the date of the Annunciation.  Days to recall beginnings and endings.



The Lord of the Rings then is a story with many stories concealed within it. Tolkien’s subtlety is that he lays a trail of clues for his readers.


His final hidden clue – the last elvish rune – is the word Tolkien invented to describe what he saw as a good quality in a fairy-story – and that word was eucatastrophe, this being the notion that there is a “sudden joyous ‘turn’” in the story, where everything is going well, “giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy”, whilst not denying the “existence of dyscatastrophe – of sorrow and failure”.


Tolkien said:


“I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.


That is what shaped his life, what shaped his beliefs, where faith and fiction are joined as one – and why his work is a great spiritual adventure as well as high fantasy at its very best.



 David Alton, November 2016.          






The Four Quartets – BBC Radio Four read by Jeremy Irons

Four Quartets

The Four Quartets will be read by Jeremy Irons on BBC Radio Four on Saturday January 18th, 2014, at 14:30 – 15.45 pm with an introduction by Michael Symmons Roberts, Lord David Alton and Gail McDonald.

Four Quartets

Saturday Drama: Four QuartetsJeremy Irons reads Four Quartets by TS Eliot.

Four Quartets is the crowning achievement of TS Eliot’s career as a poet. While containing some of the most musical and unforgettable passages in 20th century poetry, its four parts – ‘Burnt Norton’, ‘East Coker’, ‘The Dry Salvages’ and ‘Little Gidding’ – present a rigorous meditation on the spiritual, philosophical and personal themes which preoccupied the author.

It was the way in which a private voice was heard to speak for the concerns of an entire generation in the midst of war and doubt that confirmed it as an enduring masterpiece.

Producer/ Susan Roberts for the BBC

Four Quartets 3

T.S.Eliot: The Four Quartets

1. Where does it sit in the canon of English Literature?

In thinking about Eliot’s masterpiece I found Dr,.Paul Murray’s “T.S.Eliot and Mysticism: The Secret History of “Four Quartets” indispensable.

It’s over forty years since, as a school boy, I discovered Eliot, and it’s nearly 80 years since he began writing Burnt Norton, the first of his Four Quartets. Perhaps the first thing to say is that the mere passage of time has not dulled the poems, having lost none of their status as strikingly ‘modern’ poetry.

I read the Quartets after I had read The Waste Land – Eliot’s very bleak view of a maimed and disfigured England – and they invite the reader to consider how the waste lands of our lives might be transformed.

They are devotional and meditative poems but just as John Donne and the devotional poets of the seventeenth century, replaced the language of the Elizabethan era, Eliot writes in a new and original way – displaying religious genius, amazing originality, and extraordinary learning and depth. His originality is central to this masterpiece.

Eliot, of course, draws on innumerable sources – theological, philosophical, mystical, mythical, and poetic – so much so that at times he has been accused of a sort of literary kleptomania. He countered this by saying that “true originality is merely development.”

More than any other source, I think we need to see The Quartets in parallel to Dante.

Ezra Pound said of Eliot “His was the true Dantean voice” while Eliot himself once remarked:”I regard his poetry as the most persistent and deepest influence on my own work.”

Dante’s imagery: the idea of the “refining fire” in the Four Quartets comes fromPurgatorio and the celestial rose and fire imagery of Paradiso are all incorporated into the poems. Those we meet in the Quartets, trapped in time, are like those stranded between life and death in Dante’sInferno.

Eliot’s own assessment of where he sits within the canon of English literature is revealing. He said: “My reputation in London is built upon one small volume of verse, and is kept up by printing two or three more poems in a year. The only thing that matters is that these should be perfect in their kind, so that each should be an event.” That’s a pretty good yardstick against which to measure the blissful perfection of the Quartets.

He had an aversion to the emotionalism of the romantics and his poetry sparked a revival of interest in the metaphysical poets – infusing his own work with challenging psychological, sensual, and unique ideas.

Eliot, himself, regarded Four Quartets as his masterpiece, and it was the work which led to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The vast number of learned articles and books of literary criticism about Eliot and his poetry underline the claim of genius.

T.S.Eliot at the BBC

2. The Historical Context?

Written just before and during the Second World War, the first poem, Burnt Norton was published in 1936, East Coker in 1940, The Dry Salvages in 1941, and Little Gidding in 1942.

Burnt Norton is named after a Manor House and he wrote it while working on his play, Murder in the Cathedral. For me, it conjures up the lost opportunities of those inter war years“Down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened, Into the rose garden.”

But this is deeper than simply mourning what might have been. In the preceding years we had lost our innocence; we had lost a blissful world just as mankind had lost humanity’s primeval home through our folly in the Garden.

The second Quartet, East Coker, was published just after the War began. Eliot passionately believed that Germany and Nazism had to be fought and defeated, and England, with its ancient lineage, vigorously defended.

He had visited East Coker, a small village in Somerset, two years earlier. It was where his own ancestors had lived. Some emigrated to America in the 17th century – and the poem has a flavour of the pilgrim father. East Coker is where Eliot asked for his own ashes to be buried. And the poem examines the cycles of life and death: “In my beginning is my end.”

It is the poem which inspires me the most – especially the link which Eliot makes between human suffering and the Good Friday cross; the poet’s own admission of his own helplessness; the procession of statesmen, rulers, merchant bankers and the rest who “all go into the dark” and the appearance of the wounded surgeon and the deep compassion of the healer’s art, needed by Eliot’s and every other generation.

Dry Salvages came a year later and was written during air raids on London. Eliot himself had volunteered as a night watchman to help during the air raids. The London Blitz had begun on September 7th, 1940 and Hitler’s intention was to demoralise the population. 348 German bombers and 617 fighters began a blitzkrieg that continued until the following May. Underground stations sheltered as many as 177,000 people each night – and in one incident alone 450 people were killed.

This was the backdrop to a poem which warns us that if we allow ourselves to simply drift like flotsam and jetsam we will be wrecked on the rocks – the dry salvages – which are a group of rocks of Cape Ann, in Massachusetts. More than anything else Eliot now tells us to pray.

A year earlier, in 1939, King George VI, in his Christmas broadcast quoted Minnie Haskins, “And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown, And he replied: Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.”

In May 1940 King George then called the whole nation to prayer and to commit their cause to God, as 335,000 men were waiting to be evacuated from Dunkirk. Mirroring the King’s words, Eliot calls us to “prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action” invoking the “Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory
and writing:
“Repeat a prayer also on behalf of women who have seen their sons or husbands setting forth, and not returning” and “ Also pray for those who were in ships, and Endeed their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lip.”
Little Gidding was completed in 1942, as Britain’s fortunes were turning. It was the year of El Alemain and came as America entered the war after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour.

Here Eliot is reminding us that the fire of bombs brings death but the fire of Pentecost brings life. He is saying that the enemy may be defeated and repeatedly uses the refrain of Julian of Norwich that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” if only we realise that alienation from God is more dangerous than Hitler; that we must come through the fire of purgation to new life and resurrection.

T.S.Eliot In My Beginning
Julian of Norwich

3. How does it relate to Eliot’s Christianity?

Eliot was received into the Church in 1927. An Anglo-Catholic, he was part of a generation of talented Christian writers – CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Dorothy L Sayers, G.K.Chesterton, Walter de La Mare and Evelyn Waugh among them. But Eliot was a Christian writing in an era of scepticism and atheism.

Virginia Woolf needled Eliot about religion and once asked him “did he got to church?” “did he hand round the collection plate?” “Yes, O really!” “did he pray, and what did he experience?”

In answer, Eliot apparently leaned forward, bowing his head prayerfully, and described how he attempted concentrate, to forget himself, seeking union with God.

And that I suppose is the essence of Four Quartets: it is his attempt to make music – what he called “the music of ideas” – it is a spiritual canticle with a number of central themes and subjects but they are all bound together in Eliot’s mysticism.

He draws heavily on the mystics such as St.John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich and writings such as “The Cloud of Unknowing.” In 1930 he wrote that “forest sages, desert sages, men like John of the Cross and Ignatius really mean what they say because they have looked into the abyss.” Simultaneously he rejects occultism, spiritualism and contrasts magic with mysticism.

But he is also influenced by Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish theologian and by his contemporary, Karl Barth – and he sides with them in their battle for a new Protestant orthodoxy against liberal Protestantism. From the Catholic tradition he had a love of Thomas Aquinas and had been influenced by Jacques Maritain, the Thomist theologian. And there are Buddhist and Brahmin influences – although he asserted that “Christian revelation is the only full revelation.”

While Eliot admits his knowledge of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises it is the more precise Augustinian method of establishing self knowledge which attracts him. There’s a groping into the darkness and depths of the soul; a delving into sensory memories; a desire to risk unbearable experiences – a willingness to “disturb the dust”; the pointing “to one end which is always present,” the use of the elements, air, earth, water and fire, to define his own spiritual journey.

Eliot takes us into what time means to him; then into the unsatisfactory nature of the world; then to purgation; into lyrical and intercessory prayer. Through the Annunciation, Incarnation, Redemption and Resurrection, he helps us find the way to God.

Contrast Eliot with Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins believed in the Doctrine of Immanence – and saw God in all things: In “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame” he wrote that“…Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” he said “Glory be to God for dappled things.” –

Eliot, by contrast, believed in the Doctrine of Transcendence – insisting on a separation of the human and divine, of the temporal and eternal – which takes you into the way of interior darkness, self denial, purification, self exploration, self criticism (as in The Spiritual Exercises) and self discovery. George Orwell called this “a melancholy faith” and, although there is sometimes a

Puritan distaste for life, for me Eliot represents man’s yearning to find purpose and meaning in life. At times his voice is that of an Old Testament prophet. In fact, East Coker opens with a text which is largely based on the second chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes: “a time for every purpose under heaven”.

Eliot himself mediated n the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary – the agony of Jesus in the Garden; the scourging of Jesus at the pillar; the crowning with thorns; the carrying of the cross; and the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

Having journeyed through these events, the poet arrives at his destination: “and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

T.S.Eliot memorial stone

The Hobbit and Life of Pi

There have been some wonderful movies showing over Christmas and the New Year.

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel’s novel of the same name, is spell bindingly good. The story revolves around a 16-year old Indian boy called Piscine Molitor, “Pi” Patel, who suffers a shipwreck in which his family dies. He is stranded in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat and raft with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. We poignantly share in Pi’s journey of self discovery and his spiritual awakening – and how he ultimately places himself in God’s hands.

Many of the themes which make the Life of Pi such a good yarn can also be found in this year’s other epic movie, J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit – brought to the screen by Peter Jackson. Here, too, is a battle against all the odds, another journey of self discovery and a reliance on a faith which sees you through.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (to give it its unabbreviated title), was published on 21 September 1937 and was nominated for the Carnegie Medal. It paved the ways for “The Lord of the Rings”, which followed in 1954.
In a letter which Tolkien wrote, in1955, to W.H.Auden, he says he began to write The Hobbit in 1929 while marking school examination papers. On coming across a blank page he felt inspired to write the words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” By late 1932 he had finished it and then lent the manuscript to several friends, including C.S.Lewis.
Having been read by millions, 75 years later The Hobbit is now being viewed, as part of a trilogy, in cinemas across the country. The Hobbit– An Unexpected Journey – will be followed in 2013 and 2014 by The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again
The story of The Hobbit is located “Between the Dawn of Færie and the Dominion of Men” – and tells the tale of the home loving, adventure adverse, Bilbo Baggins who sets off to gain a share of the treasure which has been appropriated by the Dragon Smaug – who now guards his hoard. The story culminates at the Battle of Five Armies, and in this climax we meet again, as combatants in this defining conflict, many of the characters encountered in preceding chapters.
The story of the hobbit is about the growth of individual character and courage, about the solidarity of fellowship, and the nature of evil.
It takes us out of the usual comfort zones – second breakfasts and sumptuous delicious mouth watering teas at four o’clock much favoured by all hobbits.
The last thing which Bilbo wants is the appearance at his home of the wizard, Gandalf – and thirteen very disorderly dwarves who have been dispossessed of their homes and country – all of which threatens to disrupt Bilbo’s ordered routine.
In 1937 Britain’s political leaders felt much the same as Bilbo about Europe’s dictators and offered the excuse that these were “far away countries about which we know very little”.

The prevailing climate was that it was better to stay at home than to go and pick a fight with some nasty European dictator. Appeasement was not yet a dirty word. Bilbo Baggins has been compared with Neville Chamberlain – then the Prime Minister – as a creature who simply favoured a quiet life.

Like those reluctant to see their lives disturbed by unwelcome events, Bilbo spends his life “dreaming of eggs and bacon” and of his well stocked larder.

Uncomfortably, Gandalf gives him the unwelcome reminder that Bilbo’s mother was a Took and that more is expected of him than complacent indifference.

Thorin, the dwarf king is initially sceptical and contemptuous of Bilbo and fails to see Bilbo’s inner strength and qualities and Thorin has to radically reassess his first impressions – ultimately describing the hobbit as “the child of the kindly west.”
In describing the setting for his epic tale Tolkien wrote: “The board is set, the pieces are now in motion, at last we come to it – the great battle of our age” – true for Europe as well as Middle Earth.

Many of the characters portrayed by Tolkien were deeply influenced by his own experiences and by the men he encountered during the First World War while serving in the Lancashire Fusiliers.

In The Lord of The Rings we meet Tolkien’s Samwise Gamgee, the hobbit, who remains totally loyal to Mr. Frodo and who ends up carrying him and the ring to the destiny which saves Frodo and Middle Earth. Sam is like Simon of Cyrene, sharing his Master’s burden and at the climax his devoted loyalty in following Frodo to the very end is rewarded as the burden is lightened and he is transfigured.

Tolkien said:
My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 War, and recognised as so far superior to myself.”

Sam’s humility turns him into the greatest of Tolkien’s heroes. Although he is only Frodo’s gardener, Tolkien is reminding us that so often we miss what is important about the people we meet, what matters most, and too frequently judge them by the job they do or their social origins. Tolkien says that his stories are concerned with ‘the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble’ – and the meek Sam certainly inherits the earth.

It will be Frodo, Sam and their companions, the next generation of hobbits – “children from the kindly west” – not Bilbo nor his alter ego, Chamberlain – who will be called upon to save Middle Earth from the evil which now threatens to engulf and destroy it.

It is hardly coincidence that The Lord of The Rings is written while the fight against totalitarian forces is raging and as Churchill is called upon to lead the country through the Battle of Britain.
In “The Hobbit” Tolkien isn’t writing a polemic and his story works at any number of levels. He wants to take us into a new world, a different universe, but one which relates to our own. Underlining this is his use of runes, both as decorative devices and as magical signs within the story, introducing us to a new language – as you might expect from a professor of philology. The stories are also full of pointers to Tolkien’s faith and he wrote that “The Lord of The Rings” is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously at first, but consciously in the revision”.
C.S.Lewis, writing in The Times said that both children and adults would enjoy “The Hobbit”:The truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together: a fund of humour, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology.”

Peter Jackson has produced a movie worthy of that story and, to use another of Lewis’s phrases, it is a story which requires adults and children alike to go “further up and deeper in” and to discover the richness of the many stories within the story.HobbitLife_of_Pi_2012_PosterHobbit 2HobbitLife-of-Pi-3D-poster

Why Britain Needs The Sharp Compassion of the Healer’s Art Maranatha Lecture October 3rd 2012. Manchester.  

Click on this link for the power pont presentation which accompanies this lecture and which is in the Media section of the web site.

Click on the linkbelow for a link to the video recording of the lecture:

Why Britain Needs The Sharp Compassion of the Healer’s Art

Maranatha Lecture October 3rd 2012. Manchester.

David Alton


I am very pleased to have been asked to deliver this Maranatha Lecture tonight, especially as it gives me the opportunity to thank Dennis and Sheila Wrigley for their friendship and encouragement over these past 40 years.

Let me also thank Kevin McKenna for his work in organising tonight’s event.

Maranatha’s call for unity, renewal and healing has always been close to my heart and although all three of those words are each worth an entire lecture I have chosen tonight to concentrate on the damaged and wounded world in which we live and the need for healing in our own lives; in our families; in our communities and in our nation.


Explaining the title of the Lecture


For the lecture’s title I have used a phrase which appears in T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets – the second of which is called East Coker.

East Coker is a village in Somerset, mentioned in the Doomsday Book and with evidence of Roman habitation.   Eliot’s ancestors came from the village and his ashes were brought there after his death in 1965.

Eliot, an American who took British citizenship and went on to win the Nobel Prize for poetry,  visited the village in 1940, as war raged throughout Europe; and it was against this fiery and chaotic background, and in this context of a nation facing catastrophe, that Eliot composed  East Coker:

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art”

The Four Quartets  (“Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding”) are the clearest and richest exposition of Eliot’s Christianity and move us beyond the spiritual desiccation and sense of defeat represented in  his 1922 poem, “The Waste Land” and deftly take the reader from chaos to renewal, from damage to healing, from despair to hope.

The wounded, bleeding, surgeon capable of treating the distempers and afflictions visited upon us is Christ, the true physician: the wounded healer who applies the hard steel of the scalpel to cut away the infected and gangrenous decaying tissue.

Bloody and risky though it can be, exposing ourselves to this sharp compassion is the only way to new life and new hope.   East Coker is a call to put ourselves trustingly into God’s hands.

Anyone who has undergone surgery will concur – and I had surgery on my spine last year – the decision to place yourself in the healer’s hands requires careful deliberation and total trust. This is easier said than done in a world which encourages us to be autonomous and to believe that your destiny is in your own hands alone.

A twelfth century Welshman, Walter Map, understood that the hard sharpness of the surgeon’s implements is a prerequisite in the accomplishment of healing: “Dura est manus cirurgi, sed sanans:  The hand of the surgeon is hard, but healing.”

That Eliot had the healing of the nation in mind, as well as each of us as individuals, is clear from the war time context in which the poem was written. It contains profound insights into the human condition and the suffering from which none of us is immune.

East Coker is a poem about agonised redemption.

The Problem of Pain


It was written in the same year that his contemporary, C.S.Lewis, composed “The Problem of Pain”.   Like Eliot, Lewis, too, was trying to make sense of the troubling and unsettling perennial question of how belief in a loving and omnipotent God may be reconciled with the existence of suffering.

It was a problem which particularly disturbed my father, who fought at El Alemain and Monte Casino, and whose brother, an airman, was killed in 1942. How could God allow such terrible suffering? The temptation is always to blame God.

Why do some people die in car accidents and others do not? Why does a child get abducted or abused, and others do not?  Why do some families face starvation, civil war, life as refugees or become homeless, and others do not? Why were some of us among the tube passengers killed on July 7th 2005 by terrorists but others not?  Why Hitler, why Stalin, why Syria, or Congo?  Last week I stood at the River Tumen, in North East China. It’s the border with North Korea, where escapees are shot dead by border guards if they try to cross the river. Why them and not us? Why are Christians persecuted in Nigeria, Sudan, and 60 other countries, but not us?  Why do terrible things happen to good people but not others?

Straightforwardly, none of us know the answer to this “why” question. Our faith is simply incapable of giving us all the answers to these and other vexed questions.

In St.Matthew’s Gospel we are told He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt: 5, 45) and no explanation is given as to why this is so. Our faith simply gives us the strength to live with the unanswered and unmediated questions which besiege us.

Even if we did know the answers, our loved ones would still be sick or dead, others would be hungry or living in fear, and evil would still be stalking the world.

It could be that we have been looking in the wrong place and asking the wrong questions.

Asking the Right Questions

Discovering the healer and His art enables us to find peace about the questions which cannot be resolved while questions like “what”, “how” and “who” – as in “what can I do to help?; “how should I put my private faith into public action?” and “who is my brother and my sister?” will deliver answers worth having.

It is against a questioning and doubting backdrop that Eliot writes the memorable stanzas of The Four Quartets – his last poem.

East Coker encourages us to spend less time wrestling with the question “why?” and to place ourselves instead in the hands of a “wounded surgeon” who is bloodied and wounded so that we might experience healing. The powerful metaphor of Christ as the wounded surgeon is accompanied by the metaphor of “the dying nurse” to   describe a Church which helps us pass through birth, life and death into Christ’s promise of eternal life.

Eliot understands that “time is no healer: the patient is no longer here” and that some questions are beyond answer.

Against the loss and pain experienced by so many, Eliot tells us that “in my beginning is my end” and that “There is only the fight to recover what has been lost and found and lost again and again”.

None of this may seem propitious but the poet reflects that “perhaps neither gain nor loss, For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

Eliot concludes East Coker with words drawn from the fourteenth century English mystic and anchoress, Julian of Norwich, who at the age of 31, while suffering from a severe illness and believing she was on her deathbed, had a series of intense visions of Jesus. Eliot writes that despite the unanswered questions:

“And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one”


East Coker was written at a time of utter uncertainty for this nation.It was composed as Winston Churchill was telling the House of Commons, on June 18th 1940, that “the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.”

It was written as the German High Command announced that ‘The British army is encircled and our troops are proceeding to its annihilation’.

It was written as King George VI, on May 26th called the nation to prayer and repentance – following which Hitler ended his general advance; a storm of great fury grounded the Luftwaffe; and, as calm settled on the Channel, some 335,000 men of the British army were evacuated from Dunkirk.

It was written as the German Air Force, that summer,  would send 800 aircraft to begin their systematic and lethal bombardment of our cities.

The survival of Christian civilisation.


In preparing the nation for the battle which lay ahead, Churchill cast up what he called “this dread balance sheet” which pulled no punches in carefully assessing the scale and the nature of the threat which faced our country at the hands of the Nazis:

“Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization.  Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

“But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.”

In every generation new battles have to fought; new enemies to be faced.  Eliot wrote that “Houses live and die: there is a time for building And a time for living and for generation.”  Healing and renewal will go together.

Facing Today’s Challenges

The challenge today may not be aerial bombardment  but what Churchill called the survival of Christian civilisation, our British way of life, the freedoms and liberties which we cherish, must be defended in our own and in every time.

In the debris of wrecked and ruined homes, of prematurely ended lives, of embattled and frightened communities, must come the same desire to move towards the sunlit uplands and to do this we will need more than ever “the sharp compassion of the healer’s art.” Only then shall in Mother Julian’s phrase shall“all manner of things be well.”

So much, then, for the ispiration behind the title of this lecture. What if, like Churchill, we were to examine the dread balance sheet of Britain today?


Christianity and Social Order


In 1942, while we remained at war, Archbishop William Temple published his “Christianity and Social Order”.  He insisted that “The Church must announce Christian principles and point out where the existing social order at any time is in conflict with them. It must then pass on to Christian citizens…the task of re-shaping the existing order in closer conformity to the principles.”

That is the challenge, too, for this generation.

The Dread Balance Sheet in 2012


To utilise Churchill’s phrase, if we carried out an evaluation of Britain today how would our Dread Balance Sheet appear?

A faithless society has become an atomised, lonely, and selfish society; a faithless society has become a culturally diminished society; a faithless society has become a fatherless society and a broken family society. What has been done in the name of freedom has created a world of CCTV cameras; to high streets which have become no go areas after dark; and to binge drinking and shelves full of anti depressants. How has this made us freer or happier? In 2006 a report by University College, London stated that “The UK has the worst problem with anti-social behaviour in Europe.”   It has increasingly felt like a world rapidly going to hell in a basket.


The Children Test

A good place to begin in examining the Dread Balance Sheet would be to ask how British children fare in Britain 2012.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer once remarked that “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children”
The Dread Balance Sheet would reveal that three-quarters of a million British children have no contact with their fathers following the breakdown of their relationships.

A quarter of our children live with one parent, not two, and a third of these live below the poverty line. Many single parents struggle valiantly – and some very successfully – to bring up their children. But I doubt that many believe their situation is better than having two parents to shoulder the responsibility.

Men particularly need to understand that you may be able to walk away from your girlfriend or to divorce your wife but you can’t divorce your children and to them you have an unending responsibility.

In 2002 the think tank, Civitas, in a report entitled “Experiments in living: the fatherless family”, found that children being brought up without a father are more likely to live in poverty and deprivation; to have emotional or mental problems; to have trouble at school; to have trouble getting along with others; to have a higher risk of health problems; that they are more likely to run away from home and are likely to be at greater risk of suffering physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.

Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet reveals that, according to the Children’s Society, 100,000 children run away from home every year.

Save the Children says that 3.9 million children are living in poverty and that a staggering 1.7 million children are living in severe, persistent poverty in the UK-which is, after all, one of the richest countries in the world. Every day 4,000 children call Childline. Since it was founded in 1986, it has counselled more than a million children.

The Child In The Womb

Before they are born, each day we abort 600 of our children, some up to birth if they have a disability or defect such as a cleft palate or Down’s Syndrome. Blessed John Paul II once observed that “a nation that kills its own children is a nation without hope” and that “A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members and among the most vulnerable are surely the unborn and the dying,”

The latest abortion statistics reveal that taxpayers spent £118m on abortions in 2010, of which £75m went to private clinics; that of 6.3 million abortions, just 143 were where a woman’s life was in danger; and that 48,000 people have had more than one abortion– some as many as eight. In the north west of England 24,933 people had between 2 and 10 abortions.

And consider three recent reports.

The first concerns a group of ethicists linked to Oxford University who argue that newborn babies are not “actual persons”, don’t have “a moral right to life” and can legitimately be killed after they are born. It’s called infanticide although they prefer the euphemism “after birth abortion.” A child is then represented as a threat rather than as a blessing:  


   The second, the result of investigative journalism at its best, revealed how nine British abortion clinics were willing to abort babies on the grounds of their gender. The Health Secretary branded it immoral and illegal but The British Medical Journal blog carried an article stating that sex-selection abortions were justified on the grounds of “choice”.

   The blog asserts that “health professionals, and everyone who is pro-choice on abortion, should support pro-choice doctors and women seeking abortions, whatever their reasons, even when sex selection may be involved.”

 “Our Kingdom” – a group which includes doctors, writes supporting this view: “… sex selective abortion is not gender discrimination. Gender discrimination applies only to living people.”


   Once more there’s a chilling logic. It just a question of “my right to choose” – the slogan against which all our values are now shaped. The mantra puts “me” centre stage, not the needs of another; it promotes “rights” not duties; and it admires “choice” without a thought for the consequences. 


  Personal choice has eclipsed the sacredness, or otherness, of life itself. It is profoundly disturbing, indeed shocking, to see the way in which opinion formers within the medical profession have ditched the traditional belief of the healer to care for two patients, the child and its mother, and to unfailingly uphold the sanctity of human life.  Gender abortions are justified by this choice-driven, impoverished, and inhumane defence of child destruction.  

  The third story concerns a Court ruling that Catholic midwives may not object, on grounds of conscience, to being required to supervise or assist staff involved in abortions.

For me, forcing unwilling people to be complicit in the taking of innocent life smacks of neo-fascism, not intelligent or tolerant liberalism.

All we need to comprehend about abortion can be found in the words of the Fifth Commandment.

Apply those words to the eugenics used to kill 90% of babies with Down’s Syndrome in the womb – 90% of whom are now hunted down and aborted before their births. Now we’re now seeing attempts to eliminate them and to let them die rather than treat them in our NHS Hospitals.

Is this the same NHS that we were celebrating in the Olympic Stadium? What a contrast, too, with the inspirational achievements of disabled athletes, during the Paralympics celebrated in the same stadium, and who have taught us so much about courage and the overcoming of seemingly impossible odds.

As we rush pell-mell into Nietzschean-style eugenics and ethics, we should recall those inspirational moments, remembering that people with Down’s Syndrome are human beings – not “a drain on public finances”; that disabled people would not be “better off dead” and that by allowing the elimination of the weak it is we who expose ourselves as the truly weak

Remember the sharp compassion of the healer’s art not the surgeon’s knife, or hypodermic syringe, used to hunt you down and kill you. Doctors should always be defenders of life not its destroyers.

Victor Frankl in The Doctor and the Soul said “sometimes the unfinished are among the most beautiful of symphonies.”  One in five of our children remain“unfinished”, not making it to birth and many of those who do, never experience the beauty of innocence or hope.

Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet reveals that if you abuse and kill the child in the womb you are unlikely to have much respect for the child after birth.

Life After Birth


Consider that five million images of child abuse are in circulation on the internet, featuring some 400,000 children. In Edinburgh, figures published in 2010 showed a 75 per cent increase in the number of babies addicted to drugs because of their mothers’ addiction.

Last year, Samaritans answered 4.6 million calls from people in despair, which is one call every seven seconds.  Samaritans say that ‘A conservative estimate is that there are 24,000 cases of attempted suicide by adolescents (10-19 years) each year in England and Wales, which is one attempt every 20 minutes” As they grow up suicide accounts for 20 per cent of all deaths among young people aged 15 to 24.

Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet would reveal that more than 140,000 people attempt to commit suicide every year; that 29.4 million anti-depressants were dispensed in one recent year – a 334 % increase since 1985 at a cost to the National Health Service of £338 million; that 7 million are now living alone in Great Britain – entirely unprecedented in our history.

26% of British households comprise just one person and on present trends, by 2016, 36% of all homes will be inhabited by a single person – a trend accelerated by family breakdown and phenomenal divorce rates – the highest in Europe.

This has led to huge pressures for additional accommodation and to toxic loneliness.


How we treat the elderly: better off dead


Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet also reveals that our treatment of elderly people is fast becoming a national scandal, with an estimated 1 million elderly people who do not see a friend or neighbour during an average week.

I was in China last week a country which still shows respect for the elderly. Here we talk endlessly about making it easier to kill the elderly by legalising euthanasia.

Instead of the sharp compassion of the healer’s art many legislators now believe that a lethal injection would be preferable.

A new Bill to legalise assisted dying is to come before Parliament and last week the Liberal Democrats said that we should introduce Dutch and Belgian style euthanasia laws.

Consider what this will mean.

In Belgium there are calls for euthanasia for prisoners and it is reported that they have been harvesting organs from people who have been euthanized.

In Holland statistics indicate that the number of euthanasia deaths in 2011 in the Netherlands increased by 18% to 3,695. This follows increases of 13% in 2009 and 19% in 2010. Euthanasia now accounts for 2.8% of all Dutch deaths. A House of Lords Inquiry in 2005 predicted  that Dutch-style Liberal Democrat laws would lead to 13,000 euthanasia deaths annually in Britain.

The proposed new British law would use the framework and provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act as a template – paving the way for the same outcomes. Instead of approaching seven million unborn children, it will be legions of disabled, sick and elderly people whose lives will be ended.

The proposals will be disguised with words like compassion and dignity but the reality will be doctors who will be required in future to kill patients; disabled people made to believe they would be better off dead; patient safety compromised; and politicians using the new law as a pretext to withdraw resources from the care of the sick.

Far from providing dignity in dying these proposals will sound the death knell for Britain’s outstanding hospice movement and palliative care. To die with dignity we don’t need doctors to kill us. The so-called right to die will soon become a duty to die quickly!
The Bill is to be based on the findings of Lord Falconer’s Commission on Assisted Dying.
Hopelessly biased and distorted, the Falconer Commission was stacked full of euthanasia sympathisers and was established by Dignity in Dying (formerly The Voluntary Euthanasia Society).
The British Medical Association (BMA) – who oppose any change in the law – passed a 5 point resolution that undermined the Commission credibility by questioning its impartiality and independence.

The euthanasia lobby decided to set up their Commission because when two genuinely independent Parliamentary Select Committees carefully examined the issue they did not recommend a change of law.

When votes were then taken in the House of Lords it resulted in large defeats for their proposals (148-100 and 194-141). The last attempt at legalization in Scotland also resulted in a heavy defeat (85-16) for Margo Macdonald’s Bill in 2010.

For the record, and to give some idea of the scale of the parliamentary Inquiry, the Select Committee covered some 246 Hansard columns and two volumes of 744 pages and 116 pages respectively, 15 oral sessions, 48 groups or individuals giving evidence, with 88 witnesses giving written evidence; 2,460 questions were asked and the committee receiving 14,000 letters. Compare the coverage given by the BBC and others to the parliamentary Inquiry with the media circus and feeding frenzy generated by the Falconer Commission.

An unbiased and impartial account of this debate might mention the opposition to a change in the law expressed in Parliament – predominantly on the grounds of public safety – and by the British Medical Association, the Royal Colleges, the hospices and Disability Rights Organisations – who eloquently set out all the negative outcomes which would result from a change in the law.

There is a systematic propaganda campaign being orchestrated by the media aimed at changing the law and for several years we have been treated to a barrage of propaganda. Even the BBC’s Radio Times joined the pack, claiming on its cover that watching a man die in Switzerland would be “5 minutes of television that will change our lives”.

The sub editor who chose that caption perhaps failed to appreciate its irony: that the 5 minutes it took to change our lives, irredeemably ended another’s life.

The BBC are in danger of being reduced to the role of mere cheerleaders, producing five programmes in the past three years in favour of a change, while signally failing to present the other side of the argument. But this isn’t just about bias.
The BBC’s recent programmes celebrating assisted suicide not only break their own Code about providing balance when discussing ethical issues but, even more seriously, they also breach the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines, published in 2000.
The WHO clearly set out the responsibilities and duties of the media. Consider some of these strictures in the context of the programme featuring Terry Pratchett and the euthanasia centre in Switzerland.
The WHO begin by reminding the media of the incredible impact which it can have in informing attitudes and behaviour:
“Media strongly influence community attitudes… media can also play an active role in the prevention of suicide.”

The WHO points to the way in which television can negatively influence suicidal behaviour. One study showed an increase in the number of suicides for up to 10 days after television news reports of cases of suicide.

They also warn against publicising suicide stories where celebrities are involved and warn against sensational coverage – which they argue should be assiduously avoided. The coverage should be minimized to the greatest possible extent possible. The WHO is right when it says:
“Suicide is perhaps the most tragic way of ending one’s life. The majority of people who consider suicide are ambivalent. They are not sure that they want to die. One of the many factors that may lead a vulnerable individual to suicide could be publicity about suicides in the media. How the media report on suicide cases can influence other suicides.”

A person’s death should not be a form of prime time entertainment, part of the battle for programme ratings – dressed up in the name of a hollow compassion.

In this country 550,000 people die each year. Very rarely do any make the newspapers or the media. Why does one lethal cocktail – but not 549,999 deaths – warrant wall to wall campaigning coverage?

Macmillan nurses, hospices and palliative care give the overwhelming majority in Britain a dignified death which does not involve commissioning doctors and nurses as patient killers. By all means agitate for improvement where the provision or practice isn’t good enough but let the BBC end this one sided and relentless campaign.

Consider what is at stake.
Chillingly, Baroness Warnock, who shaped the laws which have led to the destruction of millions of human embryos, has said that the sick are “wasting people’s lives” because of the care they require: “If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service.” Suggesting that we have a “duty to die” she said “I think that’s the way the future will go, putting it rather brutally, you’d be licensing people to put others down.”
This turns the argument into a worth based on someone’s economic value rather than on their true human value and their human dignity.

In case you think “putting people down” just “couldn’t happen here” consider the situation in Holland.

Just before Christmas the Dutch announced that they are considering mobile units to kill people in their own homes. 1,000 of the 4,000 euthanasia deaths in Holland each year are now done without the patient’s consent.

Not content with this, the Dutch say that 80% of people with dementia or mental illnesses are being ‘missed’ by the country’s euthanasia laws. They say that the death-on-wheels mobile units are necessary because some GPs have refused to administer lethal drugs to their patients.  And, in March this year euthanasia clinic launched six mobile euthanasia teams in the anticipation that they will achieve 1,000 deaths per year.

These mobile death units are targeted at “unmet need” including people with chronic depression, disabilities, Alzheimer’s, loneliness and those whose request to be killed has been refused by their doctors. It’s as if the Dutch have forgotten the last time mobile death squads were deployed in Europe.
This isn’t giving people “dignity in dying”. Sending out mobile units to administer lethal injections, to “put people down”, will strike fear into the hearts of the vulnerable.

It diminishes the dignity and humanity of the sick and elderly and diminishes those of us who condone it.
Imagine what will happen in Britain if the proposed laws are implemented. You have a terminal incurable disease. You have the option of palliative care at £1,000 a week or a glass of barbiturates at £5. What will happen if we accept Lady Warnock’s proposition that “you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service.”

How many relatives would put an inheritance before a life? One in eight current cases of elder abuse currently involves financial abuse by relatives and it would inevitably increase if we change the law. And health ministers, counting their pennies in a recession, will be tempted to go for the cheaper option – one Conservative Health Minister has already announced her support for assisted dying. A Bill allowing assisted suicide will carry the seeds of its own extension. If we allow it for some why deny it to others?

So how long before the Dutch mobile killing units arrive in a street near you?

To imitate Holland is unnecessary, dangerous and unethical.

As the distinguished lawyer, Lord Carlile QC, puts it we have “a hard law, with a kind face.” We should keep it that way.

Lord Carlile says: “The real concern was, and remains, public safety — the potential for collateral harm to the great majority of terminally ill people from giving a few individuals a “right” to prescription suicide pills. The so-called safeguards… were paper thin.”
Baroness (Ilora) Finlay – herself a professor of palliative says we don’t understand the difference between euthanasia and indefinitely continuing inappropriate treatment:
“Doctors regularly discontinue futile treatment. But they don’t do it in order to end a patient’s life: they are simply recognising that death cannot be prevented by treatment… end-of-life decisions, which are made every day by doctors, aren’t the same thing as ending-life decisions.”
When the physical, psychosocial and spiritual needs of the patient are met, requests for euthanasia are actually extremely rare. Less than 1,000 people persistently ask for it. 95% of Palliative Medicine Specialists are opposed to a change in the law. The Association of British Neurologists warn that severe depression will lead to cases of assisted dying  and that a law which says two doctors can determine such cases will offer few safeguards.

There will be no requirement that either of the two doctors should have any knowledge of the patient concerned. It isn’t required that they should have seen the patient’s case notes – or even examined the patient. The whole casual process could take place over the phone.

There is no requirement that either of these doctors should have any expertise in, or experience of, the medical condition in question. And yet this is an essential pre-requisite for determining the presence of a terminal illness and for giving a prognosis of its course.

There are no arrangements for seeking an expert opinion in cases of doubt – what will happen, for instance, if a patient is suffering from cognitive impairment or their judgement is clouded by depression?

To suggest that vulnerable people could be protected by two doctors being “of the opinion in good faith” is dangerously naïve at best and deceptive at worst.

Such a casual system of assessment is totally out of proportion with the gravity of the decision that is being taken.
Proponents of change insist that public opinion favours such a change. But public opinion probably would re-introduce capital punishment, too, and are we to suspend prudent judgement in that case too?
Rather than imitating the Dutch, we need to get behind groups like the admirable Care Not Killing Alliance, to defend and care for the sick and elderly and to put our energy into extending compassionate palliative care and hospice provision, and practical loving support – let’s demand “dignity in living” with the same fervour as those who want to license the routine killing of the most vulnerable in society

Recall, too, the story that when Mother Teresa was the guest of the White House at the National Prayer Breakfast she described to President Clinton and his guests how she had visited a home for the elderly where they had no shortage of material conveniences, but “why” she asked “does everyone sit looking at the door?”

She received the reply “It is because they are looking for the relatives who never come to visit them and who have no time for them”. Care and kill should never be used as synonyms and have no place in the healer’s art.


The loss of human dignity and corrupted values


If we have scandalous concern for human dignity at the beginning and end of life Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet shows that the deficit is not much better when it comes to other vulnerable groups. 2,000 people  are sleeping rough in England the number increased by a fifth last year;  84,900 households (which may contain more than one person) are classified as homeless; the prison population has increased by 85 per cent since 1993 with 87,673 men and women are in our jails; gun crime in the United Kingdom claims 30 victims every day; the average lifespan for people who get involved in gun crime in Manchester is a mere 24 years; that one woman in every four will be the victim of violence in her own home during the course of her lifetime.

Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet   reveals that individuals now owe more in debt than the wealth generated by the entire country in a year.  At the end of July 2012 total UK personal debt stood at a revised £1.410 trillion – up from £1.406 trillion at the end of July 2011.

331 people every day of the year will be declared insolvent or bankrupt. This is equivalent to 1 person every 60 seconds during a working day.  Almost 30 of every 10,000 people living in the north west of England are destined for insolvency.

Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet reveals a society where too many people think they owe nothing to anyone except the pursuit of their own desires.  We increasingly fail to participate.

Opting Out of Society


The Caravan Club and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have more members than all of the UK’s political parties combined. Just 1% of the population are members of a political party in the UK. We have come a long way since the Liberal, Conservative or Labour Club sat in the heart of every community. Trimdon Labour Club – the scene of Tony Blair’s Sedgefield triumphs – closed a year ago.

In 1951 the Conservative Party had 2.9 million members, Labour, 876,000; today they have 177,000 and 190,000 respectively and the Liberal Democrats have seen a reduction of their membership by 30,000 to 66,000.

Involvement in church life has also declined. While almost 2 out of 3 still identify themselves as Christians around 15%, 4 million people, go to church at least once a month – the fourth lowest attendance rate in Europe. Intriguingly many still claim a personal relationship with God but decline to make the effort to take part in church life. They believe without belonging; believe without participating.

There has also been a decline in membership of trades unions from 13million to 7 million in little over 30 years; and representative organisations, such as Women’s Leagues and the Mother’s Unions, also experiencing significant falls.

For a society to be healthy we have to be participators and the trustees, not the owners, of what we possess. Social, political and economic activity must ultimately centre on the common good rather than individual acquisitiveness or the hegemony of the state.

Living and partly living: the abolition of man

TS Eliot could have had our diminished and dehumanised society in mind when he suggested that we are “living and partly living”, while CS Lewis prophetically foresaw a society where we would see what he famously called “The Abolition of Man”.

And how do we intend to address the deficit on Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet?

What can we learn from what has gone before?

During the eighteenth century men like John and Charles Wesley, their hearts warmed, as they said, by the Holy Spirit, stepped into the quagmire that was Britain then. Their new enthusiasm so alarmed the church authorities that church doors were literally barred against them.

In the fields and at make shift venues the re-evangelisation of England began.  The Wesleys, George Whitfield, and others, deepened the religious renewal – followed in the nineteenth century by the Oxford Movement and the Tractarians, and then by the Catholic Spring and Cardinal John Henry Newman and Cardinal Manning.  The religious awakening was accompanied by a commensurate awakening of social virtue and work for the common good,and among the achievements of Christian social reformers such as William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury were the abolition of slavery, the ending of child labour, public health legislation, ragged free schools, and significant social progress.

A century later, in 1904, Joseph Jenkins led an extraordinary Welsh religious revival which brought 100,000 converts in a year. Many became the flag bearers for political and social activism. The chapel spearheaded reform and deterred revolution.

Through these examples of religious and spiritual revival we can trace personal renewal and then national reconstruction.  We can also see the path we need to take.  Having understood the Dread Balance Sheet and analysed the root causes we then need to commit ourselves to act.

Be clear: a nation or State will not survive for long if its communities and civil structures are decaying or if its rulers do not pursue civic virtues. A society where individual autonomy and individual choice become trump cards in every game lives dangerously close to the edge.   A respect for law, a sense of personal responsibility, public spirit and munificence, firmness of purpose, discernment and foresight, perseverance, and a sense of duty might be chief among the civic qualities to which we aspire; and our gifts must be used for the common good.

It is self evident that our civil society has become increasingly uncivil as modern citizenship has revolved around the flaccid language of rights alone and with a weakened sense of ethics and a lack of virtue, and with no shared framework for reaching conclusions because there are so few shared values.

We have created a dehumanised society where we breed unrealisable demands, a cult of selfishness and materialism. The Jewish sage Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I?”


And what will be the fate of those who are only for themselves?  Eliot puts it like this in East Coker:

“O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark…

…And we all go with them, into the silent funeral…”


Does it have to be like this?

When Europe was facing the challenge of Nazism the Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, prophetically wrote: “The most important question for the future is how we can find a basis for human life together, what spiritual laws we accept as the foundation of a meaningful human life.”    

And to meet this challenge Bonhoeffer argued that we each have a duty to take a stand:  “We have been the silent witnesses of evil deeds. What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men.”

 Bonheoffer also warned that “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself” while Dr.Matin Luther King said Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”

In every sphere of life today we need plain, honest, straightforward men and women willing to speak up about the condition of our nation.

Like Bonhoeffer, St.Edith Stein died at the hands of the Nazis.

A German-Jewish philosopher, who became a Catholic nun she died in the gas chamber at Auschwitz. At a time when the Nazi State was stifling dissent and corralling its citizens into conformism with the tenets of National Socialism, Stein wrote tellingly about the responsibility of every citizen to be an agent for good or ill; and about  the way in which the values of the individual citizen determine the nature of the State in which they live. Both society and the State consist entirely of persons. These are not mysterious entities.  They are made up of men, women and children whose strengths and weaknesses, talents and needs, are all too real.

“The state is not an abstract entity. It acts and suffers only as those individual agents through whose actions the functions of the state are discharged act and suffer… Moral predicates apply to the state only insofar as they apply to the relevant individuals.’  

The State, then, takes its inspiration from the values of its citizens.

If Britain is to be remade it will require a huge effort to persuade every citizen to take seriously the promotion of the commons good.Out of the present malaise and crisis is an opportunity to proclaim a belief in human dignity, the worth of each life; the duty we each have to the communities of which we are a part: a call for an outpouring for the common good.

Crisis or Opportunity?

The Chinese calligraphy for the word crisis can also be used for the word opportunity.  Dire situations can be turned around.

Winston Churchill wept when he saw the destruction of the East End of London by Nazi bombardment. He understood the importance of drawing a whole nation around a common cause:  “All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope.”

Today, our nation faces a new common enemy and a new peril. It is both external and internal.  But it can also become a common cause; and one of the best weapons we have remains Churchill’s belief in those single words which we in Great Britain cherish: freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope.

Britain urgently needs to feel the sharp compassion of the healer’s art – and think what our country would be like if healing became a central mission of the Church in every family, neighbourhood and across the nation.

In the Four Quartets Eliot tells us that “The only hope, or else despair, Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre- To be redeemed from fire by fire.”

He is referring to the fire of the Holy Spirit and to “The dove descending breaks the air,  With flame of incandescent terror,  Of which the tongues declare,  The one discharge from sin and error … Love is the unfamiliar Name, Behind the hands that wove, The intolerable shirt of flame, Which human power cannot remove, We only live, only suspire, Consumed by either fire or fire.”

Touched by the sharp compassion of the healer’s art our hearts can be repaired and as we are healed we may then heal our families, our communities and our nation.

There is no other way and our task must surely be to persuade our fellow citizens to join us in seeking the balm of the wounded healer.

Book Shelf

Some Books Worth Reading….







No Greatness Without Goodness by Randy Lewis


randy lewis

I would really recommend No Greatness Without Goodness by Randy Lewis. He was Senior Vice President of Logistics at Walgreens in the US and transformed their employment policies resulting in 10% of the workforce being people with disabilities. It’s. Truly inspiring read.  Lewis effectively and bravely demolished the myth that a profitable company which actively recruited disabled people would be placed at a commercial disadvantage, unable to properly serve its customers, and outpaced by its competitors. Randy Lewis’ motto “what’s the use of having power if you don’t use it to do good?” is clearly one which we should all take to heart.


randy lewis2

Now that Walgreens has bought the High Street chemist, Boots,  I wonder whether the new, amalgamated, company will be adopting the same demanding criteria as Walgreens U.S.? This would set a U.K. gold standard and inspire others to follow suit.








A Postcard from the Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany Lucy Beckett


Lucy Beckett

Lucy Beckett


This is a brilliant and beautifully written novel set in pre-war Germany. It charts the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism through the lives of two young men, Adam and Max, one Polish, the other German. It poignantly examines their search for friendship and meaning in their lives.




Max von Hofmannswaldau is a seriously gifted musician, with Jewish blood, from a Prussian aristocratic family. Having escaped to England in 1961 he is nearing death and the novel which follows is a retrospective reflection of the horrors which engulfed lives and whole societies. Adam is a Pole, also from an aristocratic family who, affected by the civilising influence of his inspirational teacher, moves from cynicism and an acceptance of the nihilism of Nietzsche to belief and a vocation to the priesthood.

Lucy Beckett


Within the stories of the characters who populate this powerful novel are the stories of the competing forces of Communism and Nazism, both vying for the soul of Europe. It is a compelling read.






Voyage to Alpha Centauri  Michael O’Brien

Michael o'brien 1

This has a touch of CS Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy and R.H.Benson’s 1907 futuristic novel, Lord of the World, about it – and none the worse for that.  





Michael O'Brien

Michael O’Brien










One of the central characters  in Voyage to Alpha Centauri, travelling into outer space on The Kosmos, is Neil de Hoyos – a Nobel Laureate and brilliant physicist.  As the story unfolds he discovers that the space travellers are exporting some of earth’s worst characteristics. Set eighty years in the future, the drama unfolds as the ship makes for the star closest to our solar system. The story may be in the future but the struggle which takes place is very contemporary.


michael obrien3

I have also recently  read this Candian author’s Eclipse of the Sun, a Children of the Last Days novel, which pits a few families against an increasingly totalitarian government, intent on controlling their beliefs and manipulating their lives. Like Voyage  it is thought-provoking, raising many questions about our capacity to be corrupted.







Dear and Glorious Physician -Taylor Caldwell –was written in 1961 and is a beautifully crafted historical novel about the life of St.Luke. The young Lucanus faces the pain of bereavement and loss and moves from a belief in an unknown God to a hostility and anger towards a Deity who could allow such pain and suffering.

Taylor Caldwell


These are the big themes which Taylor Caldwell explores in her page-turning novel. The novel is grounded in what Scripture and tradition tells us about St.Luke – the doctor to whom Mary told her story of the conception, birth, life , death and resurrection of her Son.




Alderney Story

A visit to the Channel islands led me to read an excellent little booklet The Alderney Story 1939/49 by Michael St.J.Packee and Maurice Dreyfus. It provides first hand accounts of the evacuation and occupation of Alderney during World War Two. A walk up to the site of the Sylt concentration camp – where many of the slave labourers who were brought to the island to build nazi fortifications died – is a sobering reminder of what would have happened in the rest of Britain had Germany successfully invaded. Some of the same thoughts are captured in Island Madness by Tim Binding – a well written novel about the Guernsey occupation

Lager Sylt - where hundreds of slave labourers died

Lager Sylt – where hundreds of slave labourers died

2014- Alderney site of Lager Sylt Concentration Camp









Susie Younger’s book Never Ending Flower” was published in 1967.

Susie Younger Never Ending Flower

She was a young Scot who read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Oxford. While she was a student she became a Christian and, in 1960, went to Korea, learnt the language, and decided to work among the poor for the rest of her life. Her book was published in 1967 by Collins and Harvill. It’s an inspiring account – not unlike the stories of Gladys Aylward and Jackie Pullinger, who also found their way to the Orient.

Having arrived in Korea with a young Austrian companion, Maria Heissenberger, they set up a house for young street children, bootblacks whose employers exploited the children and took most of their earnings from them. It was a tiny house and they lived with those they cared for, sleeping on the floors and living of a simple diet of rice, barley and vegetables.

The project was an early recipient of help from OXFAM and CAFOD and it led to a second house being created in Taegu where Susie set up a home for country girls. They had come to the city looking for work and had been ensnared into prostitution. Susie Younger records some profoundly moving stories of girls who rediscover themselves and who find security, love, employment and, often, marriage.

In the later part of the book Susie Younger describes the creation of a 200 acre co-operative farm at Muhak. It was the brain child of a Korean priest, Fr.Lee, and part of its purpose was to create produce and resources to support Susie’s work. This was when she also met Fr.Stephen Kim – who would, in due course become the Bishop of Masan and eventually the Cardinal Archbishop of Seoul. It was he who stood against the military junta and protected the student protestors who had gathered in his Seoul cathedral. It is fascinating to discover him here, in a book written twenty year earlier, giving so much encouragement to a young Scot from Oxford University.

The book takes its title from the national flower of Korea, the Syrian hibiscus – the Biblical Rose of Sharon. Susie Younger says that because it blossoms from spring until late autumn this tenacious plant is known in Korea as “the never ending flower.”

The Rose of Sharon - the Syrian Hibiscus - the national flower of Korea

The Rose of Sharon – the Syrian Hibiscus – the national flower of Korea

Although, at the height of summer, the sun scorches and destroys its blossoms, the following day it is resplendent with new flowers. In the case of Korea – whether struggling in the 1960s from the after effects of the Korean War and military dictatorship or, in the North, from decades of totalitarianism – the resilience and the ability, in adversity, to renew and restore damaged beauty seems very apt.

The book concludes with an appendix in which Susie Younger sets out her personal testimony and her hope to stay among the people she felt called to serve for the rest of her life. The book was published in 1967 and it would be intriguing to know how the story continued.

Susie Younger

Susie Younger















Alice Hodge’s fast moving and scholarly account of Queen Elizabeth’s forbidden priests and the hatching of the gunpowder plot: “God’s Secret Agents” (Harper Collins) is well worth reading. I defy anyone to read this brilliant account of the courage of young men like Edmund Campion and John Gerard – just 24 years old when he plunged ashore on a Norfolk beach in October 1588 – and not be powerfully moved by the story of how Catholicism survived in England.



Another thought-provoking book is the Catholic writer, William Dalrymple’s “The Last Mughal – The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857” (Bloomsbury Publications).
A few weeks ago I heard Dalrymple speak about the background to the book:

He explained how, “on a May morning in 1857, three hundred mutinous sepoys rode into Delhi, massacred every Christian man, woman and child they could find, and declared Zafar to be their Emperor. Zafar was no friend of the British; yet he was not a natural insurgent either. It was with severe misgivings that he found himself made the nominal leader of an uprising that he suspected from the start was doomed: a chaotic and officer-less army of unpaid peasant soldiers set against the forces of the world’s greatest military power.”

The consequences of that uprising were appalling.

On the 14th September 1857, the British assaulted and took Delhi, sacking the Mughal capital and massacring great swathes of the population.

“The orders went out to shoot every soul,” recorded Edward Vibart, a 19 year old British officer. “It was literally murder … The women were all spared but their screams, on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, were most painful… Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that man’s heart I think who can look on with indifference…”

Those city dwellers who survived the killing were driven out into the countryside to fend for themselves. Delhi was left an empty ruin. Though the royal family had surrendered peacefully, most of the Emperor’s sixteen sons were tried and hung, while three were shot in cold blood, having first freely given up their arms, then been told to strip naked.

In understanding the genesis of today’s Muslim disaffection and resentment Dalrymple’s erudite and powerful description of events 150 yeas ago provides plenty of food for thought.

After this, if you want something to cheer you, turn to Gervase Phinn and “Up and Down in the Dales” (Penguin Global).

I chaired a public lecture in Liverpool by Gervase Phinn and this wonderful raconteur conveyed his profound belief in the teaching profession with wonderful anecdotes and shafts of great humour. A former Yorkshire Dales inspector of schools – educations’ answer to James Herriot – this book will leave you craving for more (and there are more). You’ll also be taken Gervase’s warmth and gentle faith.

William Brodrick’s book “The Sixth Lamentation” (Time Warner Paperbacks) is subtle and gripping. An absorbing thriller he writes after the style of John Le Carre and like Le Carre’s “The Constant Gardener” Brodrick deserves to see his writing turned in to a block buster movie.

His sleuth is Brother Anselm – a Gilbertine monk who has foresworn the courts where he was once a barrister for the cloisters. He is caught up in a mystery that takes us back to the Nazi occupation of France, the Holocaust, collaboration, and the endless layers of deceit spawned by totalitarianism. It’s a brilliant thriller.

Adam Hochschild’s “Bury The Chains” (Houghton Mifflin) is an account of the slave trade which cannot be surpassed. 2007 was the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade. If you want to understand how a whole host of players, like Thomas Clarkson, Olaudah Equiano, John Newton and the Christian abolitionist, William Wilberforce, created the alliance which changed these evil laws, this is the book to read.




“Pope Francis, Our Brother, our Friend” (Ignatius Press, edited by Alejandro Bermudez) is a lovely anthology of personal recollections about Fr.Jorge Bergoglio SJ, the priest who on March 13th , took the world by surprise when he emerged from the Conclave of Cardinals as our new Pope.

Hardly a day has passed since then when we haven’t continued to be surprised and challenged. He’s not only taken the name of St.Francis but seems determined to live by the Assisi mantra: “Use words but only when you have run out of deeds.”

This very accessible collection of insights and anecdotes is drawn from ten of Pope Francis’ Jesuit brothers, from friends, and others who have known him well. They include an Argentine Senator, a Jewish Rabbi, a priest from the slums of Buenos Aires, professors who taught him, as well as some of his own students.
It’s a lovely book which takes you into Pope’s Francis inner life, his devotions, his habits and interests, and the things which motivate him.

From the Jesuits prepare to be held spellbound by the fictional Gilbertine monk, Fr.Anselm, whose latest investigation, his fifth, is beautifully captured in William Brodrick’s masterly “The Discourtesy of Death” (Little Brown, £12-99p).

Brodrick was a monk who turned barrister – Anselm went in the opposite direction. Told by his Prior to do something for the people who “live on the margins of hope” Anselm uses his forensic skills to investigate the death of a celebrated ballet dancer – whose death from bowel cancer may have been accelerated by a relative – and whose motives may have not have been the humane reasons so often cited by the proponents of euthanasia – a theme which will be one of 2014’s legislative challenges.

Broderick knows a thing or two about ethical and moral dilemmas. His mother was a member of the Dutch resistance and helped smuggle Jews out of Amsterdam while his grandfather was a Lutheran pastor who died in a Japanese concentration camp.

His books – like is Gilbertine hero – never fail to rise to the occasion.